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Opinion: Why does South Lake Tahoe’s city council lack diversity?

Jenna Palacio
Tribune Guest Column

I’m always so uplifted by meeting new people who are living the dream at Lake Tahoe. Some were born and raised here, some are new to town, but all bring fresh ideas and unique perspectives.

It’s great to see executive directors, planning commissioners and general manager positions trending younger, as my peers earn their stripes and step into leadership positions. Yet amongst this churn, South Lake Tahoe’s city council remains the same — all Caucasian and all over the age of 50. Although it is important to have the wisdom and service of these elected officials, it is not very representative of our community, which is over 25 percent Latino and has a workforce that’s predominantly younger tourism industry staff. How can this be?

After asking a few colleagues around town, it became apparent the barriers to running for city council boil down to climate and accessibility. When I say climate, I don’t mean weather. I’m talking about the political climate of South Lake Tahoe, and I can certainly attest to what younger candidates go through after supporting my husband’s campaign in 2014 (author’s note — this column is purely anecdotal and simply my interpretation of current affairs). Things get weird on the campaign trail in this neck of the woods: experience and qualifications are assessed by anonymous people with no stated credentials on a local news blog; endorsements draw lines in the sand by people holding decade-long grudges; plus leadership and collaboration abilities are overshadowed by small-town politics. And with current council members suing the city and harassing people online, it’s not exactly a welcoming environment that’s being fostered in City Hall. Oh wait, we don’t have a City Hall. I hope the locals that have vision, passion and who can work with others don’t let this toxic climate get in the way of throwing their proverbial hat into the ring.

Now let’s talk about accessibility, or, how viable it is for the average Joe, Jose or Jane to serve as an elected official while working and having a family. South Lake Tahoe council members are paid a monthly stipend of less than $1,000. So unless you’re retired or independently wealthy, one must work at least one other job to put a roof over their head and food on their table. That means their employer(s) would need to be extremely flexible in allowing them to miss work and go to city council meetings during business hours, sit on boards they’re appointed to, and meet with constituents. I’m not suggesting our representatives get paid over $180,000 like they do in L.A., but something resembling a living wage would be more hospitable and allow candidates to focus on the issues.

In the very near future, our elected representatives will have a tremendous impact on topics that will affect how our community lives, works and plays. Vacation homes, a new recreation center, affordable housing, sales-tax increases and redevelopment will be on the table. I hope to see some new names on my ballot this year. Not just young people, but all people.

Jenna Palacio is executive director of the Tahoe Regional Young Professionals, a foodie and an outdoor recreation enthusiast. Find her on Twitter or Instagram @jennasierra or learn more at TahoeTRYP.org.


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